New and Old Information on Statin Drugs – Briefly

I get a sick feeling in my gut whenever I hear the word “Statins”. Because it was a statin drug, Mevacor, that nearly killed my mom – and made her life pretty miserable until she dropped them.

She had congestive heart failure after a heart attack at age 46. She had high cholesterol (over 300) so she was an obvious candidate for statin drugs. A few years after starting them, she was so weak that she was using a wheelchair to get around. And it was getting worse.

A neighbor saw her in the wheelchair one day and mentioned that she had just read an article about Mevacor causeing muscle weakness. Could that be my mom’s problem? My mom immediately contacted her doctor, and went in to ask questions. Yes, muscle weakness was a possible side effect, but no, he didn’t think there was a problem for her because they had been testing her regularly for that. Confused, she pointed out that she was now using a wheelchair to get out and about – where she had been able to walk short distances just a year before. Yes, this really happened.

The MD managed to back track slightly and say well yes, perhaps there was indeed a problem. She went off the drug, made gradual progress with greater and greater strength, and lived a number of years after that before dying of another sudden heart attack.

I found this blog about rethinking statins just today, from a link that Medscape shared. I don’t have training in pharmaceuticals (although I can claim that I had a short appointment as an adjunct faculty member in the University of Michigan’s School of Pharmacy). This is especially well thought out and explains the concepts of benefit versus risk very nicely.

He mentions – in passing – that this drug has not been tested on the elderly, and also the deficit that still exists of studies on women. This is a problem of many may drugs, and should be mentioned a lot more often I think. Dr. Mandrola also brings up the question of natural vs. drug induced cures, and the long term effects, a fascinating topic that deserves a great deal more attention. This is also a very nice place for conventional and alternative practitioners to have beneficial conversations.

This is no small issue. Atorvastatin was at one time the best selling drug ever, Pfizer – formerly of Ann Arbor – reported sales of $12.4 billion in 2008. In 2011 Lipitor alone sold over 7.7 billion in cholesterol lowering pills.

Imagine even a fraction of the amount being spent to promote and support lifestyle changes that we know help heart disease (diet and exercise being primary) or to remove foods and medicines that we know are linked to increase inflammation – and that may be a more important indicator of heart health risk that cholesterol. For more on those measures, please check out the article I wrote a few years ago on herbs and inflammation. You can have your inflammation levels checked with a simple blood test, to check the levels of C-Reactive protein, produced by the liver when there is systemic inflammation.

As with any drug, the natural and simple lifestyle upgrades you can make aren’t being marketed, and many doctors have seen non-motivated patients fail at using them. It is always worth investigating if there is a real and effective way to avoid the drugs and possible side effects. Bone health is another example. If adequate dietary calcium and weight bearing exercise provide the same value as bone-loss preventing drugs, why are the drugs considered the best option? With heart disease in my family, I’m careful to have a vegetarian diet, exercise daily, use a few herbs that are heart-healthy, get 5-9 servings a day of fruits and vegetables, cultivate friendships and community, and practice meditation daily. Not smoking, drinking, and avoiding other unhealthy habits are also part of my prevention and happiness strategy.

Prevention strategies need advocates and people willing to promote them. I think that should be every health care provider.

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